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Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, by Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartlett, Harvill Secker RRP£10, 128 pages
Petterson is known for tackling tragic themes: Out Stealing Horses concerns the Nazi occupation of his native Norway; In the Wake explores the legacy of a real-life ferry accident. His fine debut, first published in 1987 but only now available in English, proves somewhat lighter in tone than his later work, and is shot through with a tender, nostalgic quality.
Told from the perspective of Arvid Jansen, a child living in a working-class district in 1960s Oslo, the narrative takes the form of a series of vignettes: we learn of Arvid’s skirmishes with the school bullies, his bewildered eavesdropping on the lives of adults, his obsession with Huckleberry Finn.
At its centre is a touching, father-son relationship, in which a mutual reticence masks a depth of feeling. Foisting boxing matches and fishing trips on his boy to toughen him up, Arvin’s war-veteran dad shows gentleness and vulnerability as Petterson brings the book to an unexpectedly moving conclusion.